Density is our destiny

(This was originally published in The Sun in the spring of 2015, but it seems especially relevant today given the furor over GNV Rise.)

Density is destiny, Gainesville.

If we want to nurture an innovative economy, a place where creative young people desire to come to live, work and play, then density is the key.

If we want to have a truly walkable, bikeable, “complete streets” community, density is essential.

If we desire world class transit, demand will follow density.

The most exciting thing that’s happened to Gainesville this past decade has been the redevelopment of long neglected neighborhoods and commercial districts in and around the downtown-University of Florida quadrant. Aided by UF’s decision to build Innovation Square, we have been slowly but surely reclaiming our urban core. 

This following decades of outward expansion into the western suburbs that threatened to render UF and Gainesville as car-dependent and traffic congested as any number of identity-challenged, cookie-cutter suburban American cities.

Cities that have been simultaneously exploding on the edges while rotting from within.

The social, fiscal and environmental costs of sprawl have been well documented. A joint report by the London School of Economics and the Victoria Transport Policy Institute pegs the costs of sprawl in North America alone at more than $1 trillion a year. 

In addition to the loss of agricultural lands, sprawl forces horrendously expensive infrastructure improvements – new roads, utility lines, sewers and so on – to serve new developments.

And then there are the intangible costs of sprawl, including “consumer costs, traffic congestion, accidents, pollution emissions, reduced accessibility for non-drivers, and reduced public fitness and health.”

A rational society would write land use plans to make it easier and less expensive to develop in the urban core than out on the edges. But instead, American planning dictates have had exactly the opposite objective since at least the end of World War II. The results have been predictable – the slow death of inner cities, a deep urban-suburban political divide that has rendered our democracy ever more polarized, a car culture that has nearly destroyed the fabric of American life. 

There may be is no community in Florida that has more hotly debated and railed against sprawl development than Gainesville. Since I arrived here, in the mid-1970s, I’ve heard it again and again: We don’t want to turn into another Miami. Our fear and loathing of South Florida-style sprawl has dominated the public debate over everything from road funding to land conservation to the location of new schools.

But now, with City staff proposing Land Development Code revisions that would have the effect of encouraging and facilitating urban infill – specifically in the UF-downtown core – we’re all of a sudden worried about Gainesville turning into…what?

New York City? Boston? Austin?

“It’s an open invitation for hyper-development,” former Mayor Mark Goldstein told The Sun. “It is the worst thing I have ever seen in 44 years of participating in local government and living here.”


Worse than the steady march of western suburbanization we’ve experienced over the past, oh,  44 years? Worse than Plum Creek’s proposal to leap-frog sprawl into the eastern reaches of the county as well? Worse than the looming “hyper-development” of Butler Plaza and all that it implies for still more traffic congestion and loss of green space and community?

The truth is that Gainesville is never going to turn into Miami, nor Austin for that matter. All of our hand-wringing over runaway development notwithstanding, Alachua County has continued to grow at a slow, steady, predictable pace year after year, decade after decade. The market forces simply don’t exist to support the “hyper-development” of inner Gainesville.

That said, the planning objectives of our university city ought to be to facilitate urban redevelopment and discourage sprawl to the greatest degree possible. 

Yes we can build an innovation economy by making it possible to locate high-tech and spin-off companies within easy walking, biking and busing distance of Innovation Square and UF proper.

And yes we can expand our downtown commercial and entertainment district north to 8th avenue and south to Depot – and even beyond.

And yes, we can remake 13th Street into something better and more functional than a typical Florida gas station, fast food and convenience store corridor. 

And yes, we can make it possible for students, faculty and staff – not to mention young entrepreneurs – to live an auto-free life in quality mixed-use neighborhoods close to where they work, play and study.

But density is key to all of those objectives. And land development regs that encourage density by design are crucial to making it all happen.

Because density is destiny, Gainesville.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

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